The Trouble with White Women: A Counterhistory of Feminism

Image of The Trouble with White Women: A Counterhistory of Feminism
Release Date: 
October 5, 2021
Bold Type Books
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“Schuller has produced a work of impressive scholarship and research, from which many readers and students will benefit, though the rich and complex material she has assembled seems to demand a more nuanced analytical model.”

A good deal of current feminist scholarship is dedicated to excavating women from male-dominated professional fields and occupations where they have always existed but have been overlooked.

Kylla Schuller’s The Trouble with White Women: A Counterhistory of Feminism seeks to excavate Black, brown, and trans women from where they have been buried, and in so doing demonstrate the case for the end of white feminism, and its replacement by intersectional feminism. “White feminism cannot become truly inclusive of women of colour, trans and disabled people, and the poor for its politics are fundamentally at odds with their survival . . . the goal is for intersectional feminism to out-organize the white feminist fantasy of a world civilized and optimized by the empowerment of women.”

The book opens with a Foreword by Black feminist, teacher, and writer Britney Cooper who describes Schuller, one of her very few white women friends, as “an ally for Black women and women of colour colleagues both publicly and privately in ways that make a difference.”

Cooper notes “It’s not that white women can’t do good in the world, or be useful allies in feminist world-making. The problem rather is white feminism and its gravely limited conception of how to address the injustices that all women face.” White feminism is seen as focusing on inequalities based only on sex, and to seek the extension of white men’s privileges to white women, rather than looking at the matrix of structural issues that sustain  inequalities across the board.

The following chapters examine these injustices in the US context by pairing in each chapter a well-known “white woman thinker . . . with a generational peer who is Black or Indigenous or Latinx or trans.” The chapters are organized under the following titles with the following paired biographies: Women’s Rights Are White Rights? (Elizabeth Cady Stanton/Frances E. W. Harper); White Sympathy Versus Black Self-Determination (Harriet Beecher Stowe and Harriet Jacobs); Settler Mothers and Native Orphans (Alice C. Fletcher and Zitkala-Sa): Birthing a Better Nation (Margaret Sanger/Dr. Dorothy Ferebee); Taking Feminism to the Streets (Pauli Murray/Betty Friedan); Gate-Keeping and Trans Feminist Horizons (Janice Raymond and Sandy Stone); Leaning in or Squadding Up (Sheryl Sandberg and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez).

One of the strongest chapters deals with the work of celebrated birth control pioneer, Margaret Sanger (1879–1966), and her much less well-recognized Black colleague, Dr. Dorothy Ferebee (1898–1980).  Sanger’s overriding mission was the cleansing of society of the “unfit” comprising, according to her estimate, roughly one quarter of the US population. Schuller notes, perhaps surprisingly, that “unlike many other white eugenicists, Sanger was firm that unfit was not in itself a racial marker, that all races had fit and unfit members.”

Her colleague, Dr Ferebee, considered that as a Black middle-class woman she had a responsibility for helping the less fortunate and therefore “promoted contraception within a broader goal of health justice.” While Sanger is seen to stand for “cleansing,” Dr. Ferebee represents informed health choices. Both women were feminists, which seems to suggest that this was already a broad church. Their programs brought relief to many poor families despite their different visions.

Schuller’s paired biographical approach and her pitting of white vs. intersectional models from the outset seems to risk entrenching a polarizing binary view which is surely not her intention. White woman-white-feminist-non-intersectional-interested in acquiring white male privileges for white women-uninterested in dismantling power structures = Bad:  versus Black/brown/trans-intersectional feminist-interested in dismantling larger power structures in everyone’s interest = Good).

Life was never so simple as her own data shows, even though the full range of intersectional issues (notably age, religion, ability, the non-trans LGBTQIA issues) are not really addressed.  And where do feminist men fit in? The data she has gathered is richer and more complex than the simple analytical model by which it is organized.

The biographical approach she uses also illustrates very clearly some of the problems of direct application of the concept of intersectionality. While Black, middle-class, community- and public health- oriented Dr Ferebee introduced some perspectives that were ignored or suppressed by other colleagues, there’s no indication that she embodied other “intersectional” interests. And like Sanger she endorsed the idea of there being superior and inferior physical types, advising “progressive women” (a concept not elaborated) that it was their duty to “proliferate the superior” i.e. perpetuate their kind through child-bearing.

And on the other hand , Chapter Five’s white, Jewish, Betty Friedan, long notorious for her hostility to the “lavender menace” of lesbianism, and her focus on middle-class housewives (presumed white), was forensic in her dissection of social structures of oppression (political, economic, commercial, medical, informational, and media), a skill supposedly peculiar to intersectional feminism.

It seems both simplistic and unnecessarily polarizing merely to pit “white” against “intersectional,” and to envision the defeat of the former by the latter as an event in the future. In fact most analysts of feminism date the emergence of distinct and different feminisms . . . reflecting a range of “intersectional” issues though the term was only coined in 1989 . . . to the Second Wave of the ’60s and ’70s.

A more interesting and recent development in feminisms is that they have moved beyond those professionally engaged, including beyond academia. This has given rise to some interesting (intersectional?) debates: much-respected, Black academic bell hooks has chided Black feminist Beyoncé for unbecoming capitalist behavior; and Black writer, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a relatively late acceptor of feminism, has been labelled as a TERF (trans-exclusionary radical feminist) . . . among recent events.

Some data shows that male feminists of all varieties are growing in number.

Schuller has succeeded in her aim to give full recognition to many, distinguished women whose contribution has been overlooked, although her rewriting of the Sojourner Truth (1797–1883) narrative may meet resistance. (According to Schuller, Truth could not have uttered the famous phrase, “Ain’t I a Woman.” She states that this and other pithy statements credited to her show that Truth “was transformed into a colourful caricature who promoted the white feminist agenda.” Other commentators have of course interpreted Truth’s alleged statement as an early manifestation of intersectional sentiment, in that her experience as a Black woman was radically different from the experiences of the white, middle-class, women at the Women’s Rights Convention in Ohio (1851).

Schuller has produced a work of impressive scholarship and research, from which many readers and students will benefit, though the rich and complex material she has assembled seems to demand a more nuanced analytical model.